Transparency ends the complacency party

| June 29, 2011

By Rick Redding
www.LouisvilleKY.com

The party’s over in local government.

From the Mayor’s Office to the Metro Council to every department head with the authority to spend taxpayer dollars, no one dares purchase so much as a soft drink with public money without carefully considering its impact.

That’s good news for taxpayers, and bad news for public officials who run their offices as mini-kingdoms, granting favors and cash at their whims to groups with an appealing message or a large bloc of voters. Since the media has been exposing questionable expenditures, the most disturbing aspect is the defiant stance taken by the likes of Judy Green, Cheri Bryant Hamilton and even Jerry Abramson.

Employees and government officials, when caught with their hands in the cookie jar, have reacted by saying, essentially, that they deserve the cookies.

No, Green says, despite clear findings by the Metro Ethics Commission, she’s done nothing wrong. When asked how she thought it was OK to award prizes, like Kroger gift cards, for a door decorating contest, Cheri Bryant Hamilton lashed out at the media for reporting it.

And Abramson, explaining using his discretionary funds to write a check to his pals at the Cordish Companies for a stage for a U of L celebration, told the Courier-Journal: “They called me up, said we’ve got all of these people putting up money, could you help us, or would you pay for the stage. I said yes, it’s a community thing, everybody is fired up, you guys won the Orange Bowl. Yeah, I wrote a check.”

Abramson staunchly defended spending from his discretionary fund by saying, essentially, that it’s the way it’s always been done, going way back to before he took office in 1986.

The problem here is not the amounts that officials spent, but the attitude of entitlement. When confronted with facts, they act as if they’ve done nothing wrong.

When did it become OK for elected officials to give public money to charitable causes? Is that really the purpose of those Metro Council Neighborhood Development Funds? The C-J reported that the County Attorney’s office gave this vague response to how public money can be spent, that it “confers a direct benefit … to a significant part of the public.”

So when Green says she secured a grant for the 100 Black Men organization, and directed that organization to divert some of the money to other charitable groups, she can claim that she was only trying to help more deserving groups and blame problems on poor record-keeping habits.

It’s easy to blame all of these ethical lapses in local government on Abramson. He was in charge for two decades, and Mayor Greg Fischer has spent much of his time since taking over ordering audits sure to expose bad management practices.

I’m ready to blame Abramson for cultivating a culture of complacency downtown. Fortunately, that party’s over.

Fischer won’t put up with anything that appears remotely unethical. The newest members of the Metro Council – Jerry Miller, David James and David Yates – seem to know that handing out checks and buying meals for constituents is not the proper way to govern. Judy Green is on her way out the door, and none of her colleagues are stepping up to defend her.

This new culture of transparency is working.

Guest columnist Rick Redding is the owner and operator of the local website, www.LouisvilleKY.com, The Pulse of the City.

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